Inequality is rising worldwide, but how it matters has a lot to do with how people perceive rising inequality.

Indeed, people often misperceive the actual level of inequality in their society. And only when people see the actual inequality in their society and hold critical views toward it, will they take actions such as demanding government interventions to reduce inequality. Put differently, what underlies the behaviors and preferences for redistribution as well as how people see issues ranging from taxation to healthcare is often their perceptions of inequality, rather than the actual inequality.

Local environments, media coverage, cultural and personal beliefs such as beliefs about merit versus luck are all found to play important roles in influencing people’s perception of inequality. What about the actual inequality? Does it affect people’s views toward inequality?

We would expect that people should perceive higher levels of inequality or hold more critical views toward inequality when the actual level of inequality is high.

This is not the case, however. Research shows that individual perceptions of income inequality are largely unresponsive to actual inequality conditions. The association between actual and perceived inequality is often described as “broken”, “weak”, or “transient”.

In our recent paper, we explored the association between actual and perceived inequality from a social class perspective. We show that people occupying different social classes are not uniformly sensitive to actual inequality in their perception of inequality. This creates mixed patterns in the association between actual and perceived inequality.

A Class Perspective

Class matters. Research has suggested that attitudes towards inequality are also affected by people’s social class positions. Indeed, individuals occupying different social class positions are likely to develop their varying ideas and views towards inequality through their differential exposure in various life settings and workplaces.

We recognize that individuals form attitudes in variable environments and these environments can come in the form of differential economic, social and political conditions that may shape individual interpretations and actions. Hence, we suggest that class may also play a role in shaping how actual and perceived inequality are related.

Our argument is that people of different classes may respond differently to inequality. On one hand, the economic vulnerability of the working classes means that they are continually exposed to the consequences of inequality in both high and low contexts. This may lead them to be blind to the effects of rampant inequality surrounding them.

On the other hand, while the upper classes are often less critical of inequality given their more secure privileged class position, particularly in contexts of lower inequality, they are likely to become more critical of inequality when inequality begins to increase, deteriorating their relatively advantaged economic conditions.

Investigating the connection between the actual level of income inequality and citizens’ perceptions of it will require examining the differential connections across the class spectrum.

Differences between actual and perceived inequality across social classes

Empirically, we look to test how the association between rising inequality and public perceptions of inequality differs across social classes. We pooled together data from the International Social Survey Programme (ISSP) social inequality modules (1992, 1999, and 2009).

We measure people’s perception of inequality using an item asking respondents’ opinion on whether they think differences in income in their country are too large. Rising inequality at the country level is captured by two indicators: the GINI and the Top 10% share accruing to people at the top. We situate individuals into social classes using a measure which contains both neo-Marxist and neo-Weberian aspects. It differentiates social class positions on the basis of labor markets and production units by way of the employment relations that these entail. The three-class version of the schema includes the salariat class, intermediate class, and the working class.

We confirm that individuals from various classes do indeed respond differently to shifting levels of inequality. Specifically, the working classes become less critical of inequality as it increases while the opposite is true for the upper classes. This creates a counterbalancing effect that obscures the aggregate relationship between actual and rising inequality and people’s perceptions of it.

At lower levels of inequality, the middle and upper classes are less likely to view inequality critically. Not surprisingly, in these contexts, the lower classes are the most critical of inequality. Interestingly, as inequality increases, a greater proportion of the population feel the negative effects of inequality, which leads to a rising tide of critical perceptions among the middle and upper classes. Higher levels of objective inequality in many societies may bring the attitudes towards inequality of the various class fractions together.

In conclusion, we suggest that rising income inequality has ushered in concerns with inequality even among those most privileged and this represents a site with which to create new alliances to bring together those class groups who possess divergent economic interests.


Edward Haddon is a Lecturer in the Department of Sociology at the University of British Columbia, Canada. Find him on Twitter @EdwardHaddon.

Cary Wu is a sociology professor at York University in Ontario, Canada. Find him on Twitter @carywoo.

To read more, see: Edward Haddon and Cary Wu. “How Does Actual Inequality Shape People’s Perceptions of Inequality? A Class Perspective” in Sociological Perspectives 2021.

Image: Money-2180330 1920 via Wikipedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)